Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

The new news

The modern face of the news is social mediaare we willing to call it journalism?

It’s been a trying couple of weeks in the news. First there was the shooting of Alton Sterling that was somehow made more gritty and real on the grainy cellphone video recording of a bystander. The very next day I watched, along with the rest of the world, as Philando Castile breathed his last while his girlfriend live-streamed his dying moments on Facebook.

Last Thursday I woke up to a Twitter feed filled with videos of the horrific terror attack in Nice, followed a few days later by similar information about the abortive coup in Turkey. Each of these incidents was covered on mainstream media, but I discovered them through social media. Which is where, it seems, all the news is being made these days.

A decade ago, no one would have dreamed that the Internet could disrupt the news industry. That it has is now undeniable.

In the US, newspaper revenues are currently at historic lows—roughly half of what they used to be at their peak in 2005. Publications such as The New York Times, which bravely took the early decision to invest in digital, today have more digital subscribers than print. Even in India, where print media is alive and well and expected to grow 14% every year, the green shoots of an all-digital future are visible in web-only portals such as The Wire, Scroll (and even specialised platforms such as Factor Daily and The Ken) that offer content you can only access if you are online.

But this is not the Ground Zero of news disruption. The real change is taking place in our pockets where lay people like you and me are contributing to a grassroots transformation in the manner in which news is collected, curated and disseminated. The ubiquity of smartphones coupled with the proliferation of reliable, high bandwidth mobile Internet, has turned everyone with a mobile phone into a human-sized OB van.

Applications such as Facebook Live and Periscope that are deeply embedded into the infrastructure of large social media platforms, take these user-generated videos and serve them up on live streams that are instantly and virally delivered to the very audience that is most interested in consuming it. This is modern news—live, raw and consumed by an algorithmically relevant audience. It is the new future of journalism.

Shortly after the Castile video began to go viral on Facebook, it was suddenly no longer available anywhere on the platform. When it came back on stream an hour later, it had been prefaced by a user warning highlighting the graphic nature of the content. Facebook called the absence a “glitch", and while we will never know what exactly happened, someone at Facebook headquarters seems to have taken the editorial decision to pull the feed from the public stream and bring it back online with a user discretion advisory.

I see this proactive re-classification of content as a subtle shift in the way in which social media companies have begun to think of themselves. Historically, the approach has been to keep their interventions reactionary, taking down content only in response to directions from law enforcement or because the content has been flagged to be violative of their internal policies.

This allowed them to legally position themselves as intermediaries—entities that merely provide a platform and cannot be held responsible for the content their users upload. The decision to voluntarily label potentially volatile content is at the same time a decision to forego intermediary protection and an indicator of just how social media companies are starting to come to terms with their new role at the front line of modern journalism.

If social media is willing to step forward and take responsibility for the content on their platform, would the government be willing to extend to them privileges that are otherwise reserved for the Fourth Estate? Are we, as a society, willing to offer protection from intimidation and victimization to laypeople who put themselves in harm’s way to broadcast newsworthy content? After all, if we agree that independent journalism is an integral part of modern democracy, is it not reasonable that we should take steps to sustain and support this new avatar of modern journalism?

The unfortunate footnote to the Sterling incident is that Chris LeDay, the person who was instrumental in making the video going viral, was subsequently arrested, allegedly in retaliation for his role in uploading the video. This is exactly the sort of avoidable consequence that will have a chilling effect on this new form of social media-enabled citizen journalism. If light is the best disinfectant and social media is offering us a new way in which to shine it into the darker shadows, we need to build a framework that will enable it.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal. Ex Machina is a column on the intersection of technology and law.

Close